Zizek, the Decalogue and The Problem with (too much) Liberation

It is…crucial to bear in mind the interconnection between the Decalogue (the traumatically imposed Divine Commandments) and its modern obverse, the celebrated ‘human rights’. As the experience of our post-political liberal-permissive society amply demonstrates, human Rights are ultimately, at their core, simply Rights to violate the Ten Commandments. ‘The right to privacy’ – the right to adultery, in secret, where no one sees me or has the right to probe my life. ‘The right to pursue happiness and to posses private property’ – the right to steal (to exploit others). ‘Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion’ – the right to lie. ‘The right of free citizens to possess weapons’ – the right to kill. And, ultimately, ‘freedom of religious belief’ – the right to worship false Gods. Of course, human Rights do not directly condone the violation of the Ten Commandments – the point is simply that they keep open a marginal ‘grey zone’ which should remain out of reach of (religious or secular) power: in this shady zone, I can violate these commandments, and if power probers into it, catching me with my pants down and trying to prevent my violations, I can cry: ‘Assault on my basic human Rights!’ The point is thus that it is structurally impossible, for Power, to draw a clear line of speraration and prevent only the ‘misuse;’ of a Right, while not encroaching upon the proper use, that is, the use that does not violate the Commandments.

Slavoj Zizek, Fragile Absolute, 110-111

the seventh commandment

Here, Zizek’s piercing examination of liberal society hits the perverse underlying motivations of modern society right on the head. As society shifted away from the authority of tradition and faith, toward the “new” science and philosophy of foundationalism, as represented in Descartes and Galileo’s 17th century projects, we see a shift away from a life that is rooted with the meta-narrative of Scripture, which entails the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments), towards the meta-narrative of the individual and autonomous self. The self, freed from the commands to care for the “Other,” freed from the pursuit of the common good of humanity, is now given access to achieve “Whatever it is I so desire.” And “At whatever or whomever’s cost I see fit.” It is this switching of the “big” stories that has had huge implications in not only in the way we treat each other and think of God, but how we treat the earth and value creativity (I value my own creativity as self-realization not as an act of worship). This switching of meta-narratives is not only found in the “secular” parts of the world, those “profane” parts of life, but also the sacred. Thus we find theology, Christian philosophy, and biblical studies all falling victim to the whims of the liberated-self. In our freedom, we are left to help or hurt one another, we are left with the choice to do whatever appears good to us at that time, and in our freedom we find ourselves lost, asking “Is God even there at all?” The liberated, liberal, autonomous self is at once free (from God) and a slave (to ourselves).

For more see Alasdair Macintyre On Rights and Protest: Are We Just Talking To Ourselves?

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

7 thoughts on “Zizek, the Decalogue and The Problem with (too much) Liberation”

  1. Zizek offers some profound comments about the reality of our liberated ways. To think that human rights instigators leaned on the Bible and 10 commandments to justify the bill, but in fact, as Zizek points out, are in direct contradiction to it.

    This is a necessary dose of truth telling that has big implications.

    Those who have ears, let them hear…

  2. I dunno. When I think “human rights” I think of things like the right not to be tortured, imprisoned, sterilized, etc. The type of rights that Zizek talks about are certainly part of the conversation, but I think the excerpt here is awfully loaded in a way to make human rights sound trivial. (And I do think property rights are about more than the right to steal.)

    Much of modern discussion of rights is really about what limits should be placed on what people can do to each other — in particular, what the people in government can do to everybody else. I was reading a discussion on a libertarian blog recently about animal rights, and it occurred to me that you could replace “rights” with “soul” and have virtually the same discussion, since “rights” was really a name for some metaphysical property of a creature that grants it a certain inviolable worth, which everybody has to respect even if said creature is sinning its head off.

    That said, there are of course a lot of differences between rights language and soul language. What I’m trying to get at here is that when most people talk about rights, I think they’re usually talking about something deeper than sheer self-indulgence. You might even call it a secular way of asserting our intrinsic value in a worldview where, logically speaking, we should be little more than meat.

  3. @Camassia,
    Good point, and to be more optimistic about the matter I think (in some cases) you are right to suggest what’s really going on is people:

    You might even call it a secular way of asserting our intrinsic value in a worldview where, logically speaking, we should be little more than meat.

    But the point that Zizek is making here, which is similar to MacIntyre’s point in After Virtue is that – there are no “objective” or “impersonal” criterion by which agreed upon notions of human rights can be delivered within secular society. MacIntyre makes the critical point that there is no equal concept to “rights” in the ancient or medieval world (cf. After Virtue, 69). The point isn’t that there are no rights but that rights were assumed within the given ethical and moral systems of the time. MacIntyre argues that during the 17-18th century we developed a system of that is largely:

    …Defined negatively, precisely as rights not to be interfered with. But sometimes in that century and much more often in our own positive rights – rights to due process, to education or to employment are examples – are added to the list. The expression ‘human rights’ is now commoner than either of the eighteenth-century expressions. But whether negative or positive and however named they are supposed to attach equally to all individuals, whatever their sex, race, religion, talents or deserts, and to proved a ground for a variety of particular moral stance (69).

    I’d push this further, and more skeptically, to say that by drawing out the particular rights humans get, we also begin to more subtly oppress certain areas of human life, things not protected by the law. And in suggesting the almost-redundant point that people have, now in our Enlightened existence,” rights we also open up a space for some people to not be a part of this conversation (or apart of the protection of our laws). We know that in our age of “human rights” there are many people oppressed, even in our own offices and schools – not just in foreign countries.

    Of course Zizek points out the more devious nature behind the Enlightenment project, which is rightly understood as humanity’s attempt to shake free from God. And his point is to show how within modernity there has been a changing of the guard in terms of meta-narratives. The meta-narrative of Scripture and the decalogue or the meta-narrative of the Enlightenment, the individual and his or her “rights.” There is no objective formulation for rights – but the biblical narrative has its virtues and practices put in place to not just protect people, but cultivate the kind of people who don’t try to harm one another. The liberal politics of the modern age are rooted within a “common sense” appeal to the individual and his or her rights, and has to protect these rights by enforcing laws. But this is as far as it can go, it cannot justify in any clear or objective way why people should have these rights (or why some still don’t have access to them) and more importantly it cannot cultivate a people who don’t try to oppress and exploit one another. After all isn’t that what makes our liberal-capitalism thrive?

  4. Well, I haven’t read Zizek and some of this seminarian language is going over my head, but I think I see what you’re getting at. Certainly since I have been spiritually mentored by a lot of former Hauerwas students, I’ve heard the anti-Enlightenment rhetoric, and it can be kind of refreshing since I was raised on the American mythology of rights and liberation like everybody else. More recently though, I’ve been reading up on Protestant history, and the picture looks more complicated. In fact right now I’m in the middle of a history of the Baptists, who were preaching religious liberty long before Thomas Jefferson was born. Their advocacy of voluntary religion no doubt opened more room to worship false gods, but in their view this was necessary to make room to choose to worship the true God. You may or may not agree with that, but I have a hard time seeing it as anti-Christian.

    This is not to disagree about the irreligious nature of the Enlightenment, but to point out that Christians and nonbelievers and Deists and whatever had a common interest in thinking in terms of rights. It’s true that there’s no objective way to determine who has what rights, and certainly the idea of “natural rights” seems as mystical to me as anything that any religion coughed up, but for whatever reason people in our society seem to have an easier time agreeing that people have rights than they have in agreeing on how God wants us to behave. If the country were all Quaker, probably we would not be speaking of rights in this way; then again, that would probably also be true if the country were all scientific materialist. Rights are the latest twist on the problem of living in a world where people disagree vehemently on basic matters. In many ways it beats conquest, burning, shunning and so on.

    It’s true that the rights system “cannot cultivate a people who don’t try to oppress and exploit one another,” but then again, what has? If Christianity had been doing all that great a job of it, the Enlightenment would never have happened (nor would the Quakers and Baptists, for that matter). I think that’s why, outside the seminarian echo chamber, people get very alarmed when you start dissing the idea of human rights. In a fallen world, it seems to be what works, for now.

  5. @Camassia –
    True, I don’t think that Jefferson and other set out to be anti-Christian in anyway, even Zizek says that in the quote above when he talks about the “grey zone.” It’s not that there were against Christianity (though Jefferson himself had fairly shady theology) but what they did was open the doors to something that has become increasingly hostile to Christianity is certainly a point I think we can both stand behind.

    And I definately see what you’re wanting to get at when you say,

    …people in our society seem to have an easier time agreeing that people have rights than they have in agreeing on how God wants us to behave.

    And,

    Rights are the latest twist on the problem of living in a world where people disagree vehemently on basic matters.

    But ultimately the question is where is the agreement? I mean, sure most of us in the Western world “agree there are basic rights for everyone” (thought I know not even all would fall into this category – let’s not forget how many rights were violated, and very little done to protect those rights just half a century ago with WWII). But even if we had everyone get together who agrees “there are basic rights” you will not find agreement on what those rights are. And that’s the point I’m trying to make. Not that we should care for people, and seek advocacy and justice (you know where I fall on these issues), but rather that the idea that there is some for of contextualess formulation of basic human rights is a modern fallacy. The very idea of “human rights” was born within a specific Enlightenment context because there was a need to find a rationale for dealing justly with people outside biblical justification. The problem is that those rationales have never been satisfactory, and have far less been followed even in the States.

    I don’t think we want to dismiss the powerful testimony and history of a lot of Christianity, I recognize there is plenty to demonize, but there is also plenty to exemplify. Christianity’s shortcomings are certainly not the central cause for the Enlightenment though it does play a part, and historically speaking the Anabaptists arguably precede even the modern period (which is much earlier than the Enlightenment itself) – so I think that’s not really the point. In fact, I think the theology the church has in place to value people is a much stronger system – one that not only says “hey people are valuable” but one that also gives the proper tools to live that out.

    We can do much better, and I really can’t concede to your “it seems to be what works, for now.” Katrina taught us that even the States have a long way to go to really seeking the rights of those whom society tries to marginalize (here I’m thinking of Time’s recent article on how the situation in St. Louis continues to deteriorate on a number of levels). And that is but one example of it not working.

    Whether we’re in seminary or not, the church is called to speak out about such issues, and I really believe there is a reason why we’re not coming to agreement on these essential issues.

    A lot of it comes down to whether we believe the sanctity of life due to Divine Command or because we say there is sanctity of life. In other words, do humans have this particular set of rights because we say we do, or do we have value because God says we do? And depending on which one of those starting points you pick will have a lot to do with where you come out on the question of “which rights and for whom?”

    Sorry if this got rambly, it’s late but I just hope that the meaning behind what I was saying wasn’t getting lost in my attempts at brevity.

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